Based on the novel by Charlotte Brontë devised by the original company
National Theatre and Bristol Old Vic
National Theatre (Olivier)
In the days of weekly rep, adaptations of Jane Eyre were regular fodder, too often mawkishly sentimental, and the fame and popularity of the books means they still come along frequently. Did we really need this one? The answer is an unequivocal yes for it is intensely theatrical and there is nothing sentimental or mawkish about it.
It picks up on Charlotte Brontë’s independent spirit, emphasising Jane’s outspoken honesty, her frustrations at the limits put on a woman in her situation, the blind cruelty she faces and, as Nadia Clifford plays her, there is no attempt to soften her character, though we do see how near she can get to breaking.
Director Sally Cookson and the cast that created it in Bristol in 2014 did a good job. That production was in two parts. It came to the National Theatre a year later condensed into a single evening, a tightening that perhaps made it stronger, and then it toured. With a new cast it began another tour earlier this year and it is that version which is now playing.
Performed on a multi-level framework of timbers and ladders, strongly lit with live music not just creating atmosphere but almost feeling like part of the dialogue, it uses movement with visceral effectiveness, whether running figures on the spot creating a journey in a stagecoach or the several bodies and voices into which Jane is sometimes fragmented spreading her emotions across the whole stage. Its visual simplicity is stunning (though technically complex).
An eclectic range of anachronous songs that range from hymns to Noël Coward are inserted that, whatever their origin, express appropriate feeling for that moment. They are mainly sung (and beautifully) by an unexplained figure in a red dress (rich-voiced Melanie Marshall), often ominously present, who then appears as Rochester’s mad wife.
The trio of musicians are placed upstage centre; when they are not playing, their focus on the actors all adds to the intensity of the production. Sometimes the build-up of sound drowns dialogue and sound balance needs adjustment—but this was only the second performance in difficult theatre.
Clifford’s Jane looks small and vulnerable, especially with Tim Delap’s Rochester towering above her. Rough-voiced and brusque, his delivery seems somewhat artificial, but he’s a man who’s hiding secrets, so that’s not inappropriate, and it changes markedly as he mellows.
The whole ensemble work beautifully together (they should after their time touring). Most have more than one role as well as playing Jane’s inner voices.
Lynda Rooke, horrid as Mrs Reed, is a warm supportive Mrs Fairfax. Evelyn Miller another friendly figure as servant Bessie is not only a haughty Blanche but clean-cut would-be missionary St John (this is a production that is gender and even species blind). Hannah Bristow is the sickly schoolgirl Helen Burns and strange Grace Poole among others.
Paul Mundell is not only harsh head teacher Brocklehurst and Rochester’s Caribbean nemesis Mason but also Rochester’s dog Pilot: a performance with only a bark and a wagging tail to help him that makes him the nicest creature of all in Jane’s life. It says much for the work of the whole ensemble that he doesn’t entirely steal the show.
Far from wondering why one should want another Jane Eyre, even at over three hours I could happily see this one twice through.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton